Here’s some steps Mayor Brandon Johnson can take to fix public transit

For one, the Johnson administration’s choices around community development and public safety matter for improving public transit, a UIC urban planning professor writes.

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 People wait for a CTA bus at a stop on Western Avenue near Devon Avenue on Oct. 5, 2022. Ghost buses are a significant problem on CTA.

People wait for a CTA bus at a stop on Western Avenue near Devon Avenue on Oct. 5, 2022. Ghost buses are a significant problem on CTA.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A sustainable, thriving, and equitable public transit system relies on and contributes to a sustainable, thriving, and equitable Chicago. Now, however, like many cities, our public transit system is not delivering the service our city and residents need.

Current conditions on public transit are troubling, with reduced frequency and reliability. Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration does not directly control the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) or other regional transit agencies. But through board appointments and its powerful position, it has a critical role to play in pushing the CTA to address its operator shortage via recruitment and retention, for better transit frequency and reliability.

The media has also given attention to crime and rider discomfort on the L. Safety from violence matters. Yet media coverage could increase fear and usually does not compare public transit to the safety risks of driving. Some riders may be uncomfortable around homeless individuals and/or mentally ill riders or fear them, but unhoused individuals and those with mental illness are actually typically at higher risk of being a victim of violence (such as the murder of Jordan Neely by another train passenger in New York City).

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And private security, with its high cost and a lack of oversight, and more police won’t solve the the root causes of violence or make for healthy, comfortable rider conditions. Both also create their own risk of violence.

Instead, better reliability and reduced wait times encourage ridership, which can improve a collective sense of safety. And the Johnson administration could create a transit ambassador or social worker program to support those in need, while also enhancing the rider experience.

Community development matters for public transit

The problems on public transit are not just about transit issues. Because of disinvestment in lower-income neighborhoods of color, residents in these communities have longer commute times and less access to jobs — which means a greater likelihood of a missed doctor’s appointment due to a ghost train, or a longer ride to school or work that leads to lower productivity. And violence in disinvested neighborhoods may discourage transit commuting.

So making commutes shorter and trips to schools, jobs, health care and other amenities easier — transportation problems — partly depends on non-transportation solutions.

Transit will be safer and speedier if the city invests more in schools, housing, mental health support, and community development in underinvested neighborhoods. Curbing violence is also part of it. There is not one silver bullet.

The Johnson administration’s choices around community development and public safety matter for improving public transit. The new mayor, transportation agencies, and transit advocates should see these choices as transportation priorities that are important for transit riders.

Fix bus problems, go after state and federal money

In addition to its other transit priorities, the new administration should continue to support the Red Line Extension and also do more to improve bus trips, which are the majority of CTA trips.

Bus commuters, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, face the longest trips. The administration could help solve this problem by making the Chicago Department of Transportation and CTA work together to put bus rapid transit on key routes. Bus rapid transit has many features, like bus-only lanes that help buses speed past traffic congestion. The administration will have influence on which routes get bus rapid transit, and can promote routes that will promote equity in commuting time.

In addition, system-wide improvements in bus service are needed. This could include changes like traffic signal priority, so that buses can move through intersections with traffic lights more quickly. The administration can push for increased CDOT and CTA collaboration on implementing these improvements.

The Johnson administration also has an essential role to play via state-level advocacy for public transit. The region’s transit agencies will have a budget hole of $730 million in 2026 that cannot be fixed at City Hall. But the new administration can lead in Springfield to help pass legislation for new funding and change the state law that uniquely requires Chicagoland to rely so much on rider fares. And the administration can challenge the Illinois Department of Transportation to use more of its federal dollars for public transit, as some states do.

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In addition, city mayors must come together across the nation with advocates to secure federal dollars for public transit operations.

Finally, if we want a livable, equitable, sustainable city with less traffic congestion, we must make the shift and level the playing field for transit versus driving and reduce our reliance on cars. Doing this will require making a whole range of policy choices in and beyond City Hall — and that’s a tough conversation for another column.

Kate Lowe is an associate professor in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois Chicago.

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